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IRS ‘Scandal’ Touches More Nerves as Sign of Incompetence

The second congressional hearing on the IRS scandal, scheduled for Tuesday morning in the Senate Finance Committee, may offer solid clues about which of two possible ways the Republicans plan to play the imbroglio.

One choice is to pursue the matter as a potential scandal. The other is to portray the situation as emblematic of Big Government’s fundamental flaws.

The latter claim is what has created the ripest opening — if not the most obvious one to party fire breathers — to reverse the electoral fortunes of the embattled GOP. If not driven by malevolence, the only other viable reason for the IRS’ actions would be incompetence.

Concentrating on that second approach looks like the way many senior Republicans want to go. That’s in part because they’ve been given a wide opening to head in that direction by President Barack Obama himself and in part because they see the strategy as having a very high likelihood of underscoring their core criticisms about the failings of the administration and the ideology it espouses.

For those GOP leaders, the risk of the search-for-scandal approach looks less and less worth it. Some rank-and-file senators and House members have an emphatic — if admittedly gut level — belief in the conspiracy theory that has brought the phrase “Nixonian” back into overuse: that the targeting of conservative groups for exhaustive scrutiny, when they applied for tax-exempt status, was orchestrated by politically minded officials in Washington, maybe even in the West Wing, who were seeking to quash a grass-roots uprising against the president’s re-election.

If true, it would take an army of congressional investigators, armed with dozens of subpoenas, the rest of the year to lay the situation bare. And, disgusting as such a political witch hunt would be, there’s a genuine dispute over what, if any, crime may have been committed.

And as my colleague, Stuart Rothenberg, noted in his space nearby, the 15-year-old lessons of the Clinton impeachment remind the top Republican brass today that an overzealous pursuit of fuzzy malfeasance can backfire big time on the congressional scalp-hunters. The tangible evidence: The GOP lost House seats in 1998, the first time the party outside the White House had suffered losses in the 17 midterm elections since FDR’s first.

Finally, in the 10 days since the IRS story broke, no evidence has come to light that bolsters the conspiracy theory. Rather, the Republicans’ dirty tricks suspicions are based on the deductive reasoning that low-levels in the Cincinnati field office would never have taken it on themselves to play with such political fire. And the president and his team have been emphatic in declaring that, outrageous and inexcusable as the behavior was, no scandalous motive was at fault.

But if Democrats want to pursue that line of defense, they’ll be walking  into a trap of their own making. Republicans have plenty of reasons to jump on such a failed test of basic government competence.

Asked “How much confidence do you have in the people who run our government?” by a CNN poll over the weekend, only 8 percent said “a great deal,” while a majority of 54 percent said just a little bit or none whatsoever.

In other words, distrust of the federal government extends well beyond the conservative GOP base of support. Independents and some Democrats, too, share the bedrock belief of those Republicans that there are too many bureaucrats.

They also suspect these civil servants are acting ham-handedly too much of the time — not only because they’re overburdened trying to implement too many overly complex rules and regulations, but also because of union rules that coddle the poor performers and make sure a bloated federal payroll stays that way.

Making the IRS their favorite illustration for these criticisms looks like a can’t-lose proposition for congressional Republicans. Which is why three of the most prominent among them — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, his Senate colleague Rob Portman and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan — all used similar talking points on the Sunday talk shows.

Whoever ordered the hard time for the tea party groups, they all said, the story underscores the more endemic shortcoming of an arrogant, activist and overly large government where bureaucrats think they know best and are eager to use their overly broad powers to impose their will on the rest of us.

It’s a description that will prove much more difficult for the president to rebut than the accusation that he or his team countenanced a tawdry political payback scheme.

And it’s a description you can guarantee the Republicans will deploy in at least two of the top-flight debates that will shape the 2014 campaign — the immigration overhaul and the implementation of Obamacare.

They will ask: Why should the public believe the IRS would accurately accomplish one of its likely new duties under an immigration overhaul — deciding how much in back taxes is owed by someone on a newly created path toward citizenship?

And, they will ask, why should the tax collectors be trusted to fairly decide which people should qualify for the new medical insurance subsidies under the health care law, let alone who should be charged the new tax penalty for failure to maintain coverage?

Until the Democrats devise convincing comebacks to those rhetorical daggers, the legacy of the IRS mess looks to be a leg up for the GOP — even without a scandalous smoking gun.

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